It’s only words

I have known the friends I am staying with in Adelaide for about 14 years – I used to work with C when I first moved to Asia in 2000 and met his wife, JM, not long afterwards.  They are enjoying the delights of being expats for the first time and over dinner (home made gnocchi with a rich ragu-like sauce) and a bottle or two of wine, the conversation naturally turned to their experiences so far and how they are settling into their new life.

Lots of things came up in the chat, but it constantly circled round the idea of identity through language and how this creates perceptions of people and situations.  It must be stressed that we weren’t talking about racist language, although it did crop up, but more about how the ability to communicate is vital to a sense of self as well as sense of other.  For the record, all three of us have spent many years working in or around the advertising and communication industry, so I guess our fascination with language stems from that!

Language is a powerful thing we are told.  As bloggers I suppose that we all understand that, maybe it is even the sole reason we blog.  But the power of words is not intrinsic – it is contextual.  It depends entirely on comprehension.  Or on miscomprehension. Words alone don’t create language – their use does.  This context of language is not however owned by one particular group or country – it changes and develops wherever it is used.

Three people sitting chatting, all speaking the same language, but yet not.  The English spoken in the street in Singapore is quite distinct, known as Singlish to help differentiate it.  The Singapore government may not like it, but it is the language of communication used by people in their daily lives.  Is it any better or worse than “English English”.  Not at all, because it succeeds in the main aim of language, which is to facilitate communication and comprehension.  Whilst a native born English speaker may struggle when presented with “Coke in can, can. Coke in bottle, cannot”, to a Singaporean this makes perfect sense.  I can vouch for this as it reduced C & JM to hysterical laughter when I used it as an example that confused me when I first arrived in Singapore.  For the record, this was the response I had from a small shopkeeper when I asked if they had any coke – the reply means that yes, she had coke in a can, but not in bottles.  Obvious when you know…

On a more subtle level even between the English spoken in Australia and the UK there are differences.  Words and phrases that just don’t translate without explanation, but are reflective of the cultural, linguistic and environmental history of their origins.  The more casual nature of Australian society has led to a (what to an English native can seem pathological) shortening of words.  Chop the word in half, add a random vowel to the ending or do both and she’ll be right, mate.  Take a trip to the bottle-o with your bestie in the arvo, grab a slab of stubbies and head out to grab a wave.  Makes perfect sense to me.  Now.

Which brings me to the real crux of the matter – I have never functioned as an expat in a foreign language.  In Australia, English is the vernacular.  In Singapore it is an official language and is the day-to-day language of business.  In The Philippines it was widely spoken and widely used in business, particularly in larger companies.  I did have to learn some Tagalog, but only for situations such as taxis or when I was out of the urban areas, where it could not be assumed that English would be widely spoken.  Even on the trips across the region, to China, India, Thailand, Malaysia or any of the other places work or leisure took me, I could rely on English to a greater or lesser extent, or at least rely on the work colleague or native speaker I was traveling with to get us around.

People always say that the English are lazy with foreign languages.  For this reason more than any other I always find it amazing and a little embarrassing (for myself) when a new immigrant into a country apologises for their command of English.  Without a doubt it is better than my command of their native language and in 99% of cases the purpose of their speaking, their need to communicate is being achieved.  That is what language is for and as long as we understand through words, with deeds and with action then all is fine in the world.

But I still wish I spoke another language.

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A long-term British expat - 18 years and counting

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Posted in Expat, Friends
2 comments on “It’s only words
  1. This post is excellent. The majority of the English native speakers that I know have always been so comprehensive and supportive with me; but for some reason sometimes I have the need to apologize for my command of the language. Maybe it is just a sign of respect, or something I have to do to let my feelings of embarrassment go away. I know there is no reason to be embarrassed, as you said, it is something to be proud of. Thank you for reminding me that today.

    Don’t forget that it’s never too late to learn. If speaking another language is important to you, give it some time and dedication and you’ll learn it for sure. My dad, who is 52 years old, started to study English a few months ago in Spain and he really enjoys it. I’m so proud of him! 🙂

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